Wednesday, 28 January 2009

chanter - elle

Cazadero, the little town I grew up in out here in the middle of nowhere, sometimes can offer up a real gem. Rough around the edges, a bit muddled with old loggers and old hippies, Caz still has horseshoes attached to its General Store, and people still use them when they take a ride into town for some flour or some beer. The draw for people is the seclusion, the quiet, the trees: ideal for the hermit lifestyle.

One of these hermits walked down our dirt driveway the other day, a neighbor of ours who I had never met. Michael had come to offer kale seedlings, of the dinosaur variety. He stayed for a tea and a chat, and the three of us (including my dad) got to talking about foraging. With plenty of rabbit, deer, wild boar, and squirrels, along with innumerable mushrooms, greens, and the protein rich acorns that fall like hail from the endless hills of oak trees, these woods really could sustain you, if you knew what you were doing.

I remembered a time, back when I was ten or so, and an Italian friend of my parents had come with his clan of cousins to search for mushrooms. Specifically, the chanterelle. Said to grow in a mixture of madrone and pine roots, after a rain and maybe even when the wind blows in just that special way, the chanterelle takes skill to find. Bruno didn't find any that day, but when I mentioned this Michael perked up. He had found one that very morning, he told us excitedly. In fact, he was an expert mushroomer, foraging up to 50 pounds of the variety Matsutaki for the infamous Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley.

Well, do you guys want it? he asked.
Yes! was my immediate response. I don't think I had ever even seen a chanterelle, much less tasted one. Michael brought my up to his car where, delicately wrapped in a white dishtowel a chanterelle lay nestled.

A creamy white, with delicate ribbons stretching from its filmy stalk to the wavy cup of the mushrooms head, it was elegant yet firm to the touch. Dark dirt crumbled from the stalk, and as I brushed it away I really felt like I was holding something special in my hands.

He recommended a recipe, and here I pass it on:

Wild Mushrooms with Red Onions and Vinegar

Because I only had the one Chanterelle, I added a handful of Shiitake mushrooms we had in the fridge. This recipe will work for any of those strange and exotic mushrooms you sometimes see in markets. I also hesitate to give exact measures, I had about a cup and a half of sliced mushrooms, but the quanities should be adjusted to your own taste.

olive oil

a mix of wild mushrooms, sliced to 1/4 inch

one small red onion, sliced thinly in half moons

fresh thyme leaves, about a teaspoon chopped

sherry vinegar, about a tablespoon

cream, about two tablespoons

butter, about one tablespoon

1) Sauté the red onion in a tablespoon of olive oil till soft over medium. Add the mushrooms and sauté till they soften and release their juices, about 5 minutes. Add more olive oil if neccessary to keep from sticking to the pan.

2) Add thyme and cook one more minute. Add vinegar and let sizzle for one minute. Add cream and cook until cream reduces and thickens, about another five minutes.

3) When mushrooms are softened and the juices have boiled away, leaving a thick, creamy sauce, add the butter and let it melt into the sauce, then serve immediately.

Monday, 26 January 2009

Gie her a Haggis!

For my last meal in Scotland (yes, the is officially my first post from home: California), we celebrated Burns night a little bit early. January 25th, the birthday of Robert Burns, is huge in Scotland. The kilts come out the closet, the whiskey is uncorked, and haggis abounds. Yes, it may sound disgusting. Anything that involves heart or lung or intestinal parts would usually put me off, and believe me, this did at first. But I'm beginning get used to the idea of a once yearly sampling, and when taken in small amounts, haggis is really quite appealing. 

Served with tempering neeps and tatties (mashed turnips and potatoes), the spices added to the haggis create a lovely, savory dish, kind of like uncased sausages. When eating it, I've found it's generally best not to think exactly about what you are eating. It's just spicy ground meat, and washed down with some whiskey (I prefer Glenrothes), it goes down quite well.

I've found that to be really and truly Scottish, you have to love haggis. It's an institution, akin to snails in France or pork cracklin's in the South. And once they discover that you're a foreigner, they love to talk to you about it. Everyone from pub friends to taxi drivers seemed to find haggis a favorite topic, asking, always with a snigger, whether I had tried it, and whether I knew what was in it. 

It's not available in the states, something about it not being up to code... However, there are excellent vegetarian versions available, like the one here.

Although an adventure, and not something to be missed if anyone ever offers you a taste, I think I will be fine until Burns night next year. And in the meantime, the whiskey won't have to wait.

Saturday, 24 January 2009

Beer. Bread.

When I was young, five or so, my favorite aunt was dating someone name Guy. They lived together on the San Juan Islands, in the Northwest corner of Washington, and Guy owned a little cafe. He had big black hair that stuck out all over the place, I remember, and he always had floured hand prints on his jeans from baking things all day long. And although my main memory is summed up in a big waffle cone filled with blue bubble gum ice cream he bought for me, Guy's main legacy is my family's addiction to beer bread.

My aunt has moved on, the cafe has been sold, but little bags of cooking mix are still sold on the island, with a picture of Guy's face on the front, inviting unsuspecting people to buy this addictive, and simple, mix.

When Ian and I were visiting the island last summer, we bought a few packs, I think at about 4 dollars a bag. I made one that afternoon, and within a half an hour, we had polished off the golden little loaf between the two of us. I remember reading the ingredients of the packet (flour, sugar, leavening: add beer) and thinking it must be so simple to whip together, but the thought didn't come back to me until yesterday, when the sky was just a little too grey, and the kitchen just a little too cold for my liking.

I googled. I found. I baked. And thankfully, I succeeded. 
This bread is so wonderful it should hardly be called bread. Buttery and nubbly, sweet and crumbly, salty with that beer tang, it's so many things crammed into one tiny loaf. And it's one of the easiest things I've baked in a long time. No fuss, no special ingredients, no excessive stirring. Simply, soothing, and oh so yummy.

I like to eat mine warm from the oven spread with a little butter, or the next day broiled with some honey.

Beer Bread

3 cups flour
3 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
1/4 cup sugar
1 can (12 ounces) beer
1/2 cup melted butter

1) Mix dry ingredients together. Add beer, and mix quickly and gently, taking care not to over mix. A little loose flour is fine.

2) Scoop dough into a greased loaf tin. Don't smooth the top, the crags and raggedy edges are the best part when crisped up. Pour the melted butter over the top.

3) Cook in a 375 degree oven for 45 minutes to an hour, depending on the size of your loaf tin.

Sunday, 18 January 2009


Dinner parties, god parents' style. I don't have any of these, but I suppose Ian deserves them, since he only has one uncle, no aunts, and one living grandparent. Any extra family adds a bit of something, I suppose, and when Ian's godparents invited us to dinner before Christmas, they offered quite a friendly spread. Steaks and salmon, roasted root vegetables of every color, and for dessert sticky toffee pudding and fruit salad. All yummy, but the most spectacular part of the meal was housed in a little porcelain gravy pot sitting quietly next to the fruit. Foamy and slightly yellow, I had no idea what it was, but followed the other's lead by pouring it all over my fruit. Creamy, a little sweet, and a little tangy, it was the perfect complement to winter fruits that had yet to find their full sweetness.

So I tried to make it. The woman, Marie, had made hers with hard cider. I tried white wine, which was what we had on hand. A googled procedure yeilded a frothy mix of eggs and sugar and wine that I beat over a double boiler for ten minutes with a whisk. A sore wrist later, the results were lovely poured over fresh raspberries, but not quite what I was looking for. The flavor was too strong for my taste, and the alcohol seemed to overwhelm the fruit. I'm convinced that cider is the way to go, and will update when I find the perfect recipe.

Wednesday, 14 January 2009

the caramel, the onion, the crust

Quiche is a wonderful thing. Back in August, when I was visiting Ian's parents in Belgium, his mother Lynne made quite a few of them, throwing whatever she had in the fridge onto store bought pastry, covering it with a mixture of eggs and milk, and throwing it in the oven for a wonderfully inexact amount of time. All good cooks, they are a low maintenance recipe family.

So just because I like to make things difficult for myself, I finally decided to tackle the quiche this afternoon, beginning with a hunk of butter and a couple cups of flour. Along with plenty of onions, some mushrooms left over from last weekend's pizza adventure, and some gruyere cheese, I had the ingredients for something promising.

I began with the pastry which, until a visit to Leicester to see my friend Inez last week, has always kind of been daunting to me. Recipes for pastry always seem so fussy, with temperatures to adhere to and only certain amount of mixing allowed and baking blind and so on. But my friend Inez is the kind of person who just dives right in, not really worrying about all the excess fiddly stuff other people might think important. So when we sat on the couch dreaming about apple pie, I breathed a sigh of relief when she got the ball rolling, and dug her hands into a bowl of flour and chopped butter. Her stepmom advised us to put in twice as much flour as butter, with just a pinch of salt. Martha Stewart, however, recommends a touch of sugar for a dessert pastry.

In the end, the apple pie was delicious, especially the crust. Perfectly buttery and flaky and browned, something that would make a great base for my quiche. So today I mixed up the base, leaving out the sugar, and put it in the fridge to chill, while I spent the next hour (yes hour) caramelizing two onions. Caramelizing requires little effort, a lot of time, and generally an episode of Diagnosis Murder to accompany you, a 90's Dick Van Dyke television show that I had never heard of in the states, but plays here every afternoon on the BBC. And who can resist that amazing white mustache?

I fried up some mushrooms, just enough to brown them and leach the liquid, and then I beat together eggs, milk, and cheese.
Once assembled, baked, and cooled a bit, the recipes were fantastic. The onions crowded through the delicate egg custard, with an addictive salty sweetness, and the mushrooms gave just enough meaty bite to hold against the flaky pastry. And yes, maybe it is a bit of a fussy recipe, a bit time consuming, but still, so worth it.

Note: Since we don't have a quiche pan in the house, I made my quiche in a 9 by 9 cake pan, which worked quite well and gave me a somewhat thicker quiche than the thin wide ones usually served from Lynne's oven.

Caramelized Onion and Mushroom Quiche

For the Crust:
1 1/4 cups flour
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 cup cold butter
2-3 tbsp ice water

1) Mix the flour and salt in a small bowl. Have a glass of ice water ready.

2) Cut the butter into small pieces, then add to flour. With your hands or with a pastry cutter, mix together till pieces of butter are mostly blended in, and the mixture has the consistency of cornmeal.

3) Add two tbsp of ice water and mix together. You want the mixture to hold together without being too sticky. Add water a little bit at a time if you need more.

4) When dough comes together, flatten into a disk, wrap in cling film and refrigerate for at least an hour.

For the filling:
2 large yellow onions, chopped
1/4 cup olive oil
10-15 chestnut mushrooms, cleaned and sliced thinly.
3/4 cup gruyere cheese
4 eggs
1/2 cup milk
salt and pepper

1) Heat the oil in a large frying pan on a small burner. On medium heat, fry the onions till they begin to brown in spots, then immediatly turn them down as low as the burner will go. You want to cook them as long as possible without burning them, stirring every few minutes. The longer they cook, the deeper caramel color they will get, and the satinier the texture. This step is totally worth the time.

2) When onions are done, set aside. Add mushrooms to hot pan and fry for just a few minutes in residual oils. The mushrooms should brown a bit and leach their liquids. Set aside.

3) Beat eggs and milk in a bowl. Add cheese, salt and pepper.

4) Roll out the crust on a clean floured surface. My wasnt perfect, and tore in a few places, but it just patched up the holes once I got it in the pan. The crust should be 1/4 to an 1/8 inch thin. Place in pan, tucking in to the corners and pressing up the sides. I like a good edge crust, so I added bits to the top edge to make it bigger.

5) Drain any liquid from the mushrooms, and arrange in a layer on the crust. Follow with the onions, then pour the egg mixture over it.

6) Bake about 30 minutes at 350 degrees.

*a week or so later, I made this again, adding a half bag of spinach that I wilted and then layered. Results were just as yummy, plus extra spinach goodness.

Tuesday, 13 January 2009

Why the hole?

Visiting Ian's friend Charles in London a few weeks ago, we stumbled into a 24 hour bagel shop after a night of drinking. Booze soaked and sleepy, a bagel warm out of the oven topped with cream cheese, Scottish smoked salmon, and a little squeeze of lemon was nothing short of divine. We stumbled home, our mouths full, moaning and grinning with lips covered in cream cheese. And it was Charles who came up with the puzzling question: why are there no bagel shops in Edinburgh?

Such a simple little thing, the bagel. Flour, yeast, sugar and salt. And so overlooked here in Britain. The humble bagel simply does not get the attention it deserves for its quirky shape and chewy, satisfying texture.

So when Charles came back up t0 Edinburgh for the holidays, it could only mean one thing: bagel party.

We had a test run evening where Ian and I cooked competing recipes (each found by a google search). Although the recipes contained the same basic idea (mix, rise, boil, bake), they were surprisingly different. For instance, Ian's recipe said to mix the yeast and sugar with some warm water first, letting the yeast bubble and fizz into activation. My recipe called for mixing all the dry ingredients together from the get go. Ian's dough was supposed to rise for an hour, then be formed into rings and flash boiled before going into the oven. My recipe of dough was supposed to rise, then be made into rings, then rise again, then be boiled for a whopping eight minutes before going into the oven.

Until the boiling point our bagels seemed relatively the same, although I must say mine were a bit fluffier, and a bit smoother, Ian's having craggy edges all around.
I boiled half my bagels (all that would fit in the pot of water) for the whole eight minutes, flipping them gently half way through. As the second hand confirmed my eight minute deadline, I lined up the boiled bagels on a baking tray as I put the rest in the pot.

And then, in positive horror, I watched as the already boiled bagels shriveled on the tray, shrinking into wrinkly blobs coated in a thick sheen that made them look a bit like small brains.
Quickly, I took the rest of the bagels out, giving them half the time at four minutes, and slid all of them into the oven, hoping for the best.
Meanwhile, Ian boiled his bagels for one minute on each side, smirking since his was turning out to be the successful recipe.

Our two guests arrived, Charles and another friend, Sarah. They came with toppings galore: smoked salmon, cream cheese, olives, hummus, sun-dried tomatoes, slices of salami and chorizo, and balls of fresh mozzarella.
Avoiding the shrunken bagels which, unfortunately, did not rise again once in the oven, we assembled our bagel sandwiches and compared the Ian's bagels to my own.

On the outside, the raggedy look of Ian's bagels was appealing in a rustic sort of way. They were rougher, they were homelier, but in the end, the were just a bit breadier. They had the taste and texture of a bread made into a ring, and although thoroughly enjoyable, even Ian had to concede that my 4 minute boiled bagels were the best, tasting as good if not better than those London bagels we had had a few weeks ago.

Shiny and golden, chewy and soft, the bagels were a perfect bed for all the wonderful toppings Charles and Sarah had bought, and we finished them off, leaving the sad shrunken bagels for the garbage bin.

And the recipe continued to be a success two days later, when we made four batches (one whole wheat) for the bagel party, and we had ten of us feasting on the delicious little rings.

Basic Bagels
makes 12 bagels

4 1/2 cups plain flour (or 1/2 plain 1/2 whole wheat)
2 packets active dry yeast
1 1/2 cups warm water
3 tbsp sugar
1 tbsp salt

1 gallon water
1 tbsp sugar

1) Combine flour with yeast in a small bowl.

2) Combine 1 1/2 cups warm water with the sugar and salt. Add flour mixture to water mixture, mixing well with a wooden spoon.

3) Continue mixing, adding the rest of the flour in intervals. Turn dough onto a floured surface and knead till smooth and elastic, about ten minutes. Keep a reserve of flour to add in small amounts when the dough gets too sticky to handle.

4) Cover and let rest 15 minutes in a warm, draft free place.

5) Cut dough into 12 portions. Form into balls by rolling in your palm, then with your thumb punch a hole in the middle of the ball and gently pull and smooth until you have a bagel looking shape.

6) Place on a baking sheet, cover, and let rise another 20 minutes.

7) Bring the water and sugar to a boil in a large pot. Boil the bagels, two minutes on each side, then place on a baking sheet.

8) Bake at 400 degrees for 25 minutes.